Acceptability, validity, and engagement with a mobile app for frequent, continuous multiyear assessment of youth health behaviors (mNCANDA): Mixed methods study

Kevin M. Cummins, Ty Brumback, Tammy Chung, Raeanne C. Moore, Trevor Henthorn, Sonja Eberson, Alyssa Lopez, Tatev Sarkissyan, Kate B. Nooner, Sandra A. Brown, Susan F. Tapert

Publication Date: 09/17/2021

Background: Longitudinal studies of many health behaviors often rely on infrequent self-report assessments. The measurement of psychoactive substance use among youth is expected to improve with more frequent mobile assessments, which can reduce recall bias. Researchers have used mobile devices for longitudinal research, but studies that last years and assess youth continuously at a fine-grained, temporal level (eg, weekly) are rare. A tailored mobile app (mNCANDA [mobile National Consortium on Alcohol and Neurodevelopment in Adolescence]) and a brief assessment protocol were designed specifically to provide a feasible platform to elicit responses to health behavior assessments in longitudinal studies, including NCANDA (National Consortium on Alcohol and Neurodevelopment in Adolescence). Objective: This study aimed to determine whether an acceptable mobile app system could provide repeatable and valid assessment of youth’s health behaviors in different developmental stages over extended follow-up. Methods: Participants were recruited (n=534; aged 17-28 years) from a larger longitudinal study of neurodevelopment. Participants used mNCANDA to register reports of their behaviors for up to 18 months. Response rates as a function of time measured using mNCANDA and participant age were modeled using generalized estimating equations to evaluate response rate stability and age effects. Substance use reports captured using mNCANDA were compared with responses from standardized interviews to assess concurrent validity. Reactivity was assessed by evaluating patterns of change in substance use after participants initiated weekly reports via mNCANDA. Quantitative feedback about the app was obtained from the participants. Qualitative interviews were conducted with a subset of participants who used the app for at least one month to obtain feedback on user experience, user-derived explanations of some quantitative results, and suggestions for system improvements. Results: The mNCANDA protocol adherence was high (mean response rate 82%, SD 27%) and stable over time across all age groups. The median time to complete each assessment was 51 s (mean response time 1.14, SD 1.03 min). Comparisons between mNCANDA and interview self-reports on recent (previous 30 days) alcohol and cannabis use days demonstrate close agreement (eg, within 1 day of reported use) for most observations. Models used to identify reactivity failed to detect changes in substance use patterns subsequent to enrolling in mNCANDA app assessments (P>.39). Most participants (64/76, 84%) across the age range reported finding the mNCANDA system acceptable. Participants provided recommendations for improving the system (eg, tailoring signaling times). Conclusions: mNCANDA provides a feasible, multi-year, continuous, fine-grained (eg, weekly) assessment of health behaviors designed to minimize respondent burden and provides acceptable regimes for long-term self-reporting of health behaviors. Fine-grained characterization of variability in behaviors over relatively long periods (eg, up to 18 months) may, through the use of mNCANDA, improve our understanding of the relationship between substance use exposure and neurocognitive development.